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International Socialist Review Issue 21, January-February 2002

Using women's rights to sell Washington's war


Sharon Smith is a regular columnist for Socialist Worker newspaper, the author of several International Socialist Review articles, and a contributing author to Iraq Under Siege (South End Press, 2000).


ON NOVEMBER 17, the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor released its "Report on the Taliban's War Against Women." The report concluded with this politically correct message:

  Further reading
  The war on terror
by John Pilger
(ISR 20, Nov-Dec 2001)

Washington's real war aims
by Lance Selfa
(ISR 20, Nov-Dec 2001)

What ever happened to feminism?
by Sharon Smith
(ISR 5, Fall 1998)

The Afghan people want, and the U.S. Government supports, a broad-based representative government, which includes women, in post-Taliban Afghanistan.... Only Afghans can determine the future government of their country. And Afghan women should have the right to choose their role in that future.1

The report begins with a transcript of the radio address delivered on the same subject by first lady Laura Bush. She informed the listening public:

Because of our recent military gains in much of Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes. They can listen to music and teach their daughters without fear of punishment. Yet the terrorists who helped rule that country now plot and plan in many countries. And they must be stopped. The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.2

Hypocrisy unchallenged

The mass media exulted in the fact that the normally quiet and demure first lady, whose role throughout the 2000 presidential campaign was to look like a smiling mannequin, became the only first lady to deliver an entire presidential address solo. Mainstream journalists did not question the ferocity of her implied threat, however politely delivered, to spread the war to other countries. Nor did they dwell on the Bush administration's sudden about-face on women's rights.

Two days after his inauguration, with his first executive order, Bush launched an attack on abortion rights internationally. He reinstated a Reagan-era global "gag" rule, denying U.S. funding to any international family planning organization that mentions the option of abortion while counseling patients. This effectively denies the right to choose to millions of poor women around the world—nearly 80,000 of whom die each year from unsafe abortions, according to the World Health Organization.3 These family planning agencies are banned even from using their own money to provide abortion funding or counseling.

Neither has the mainstream media asked Bush to address the contradiction of going to war against Islamic fundamentalists abroad while he is beholden to Christian fundamentalists at home. Shortly before he took office, Bush began to hint at his willingness to explore overturning the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which granted women the right to legal abortion in the United States.4 This has been the Christian Right's pet project for the last three decades. Then he installed John Ashcroft, the darling of Christian conservatives, as attorney general. Since September 11, Ashcroft has not only overseen the Bush administration's frontal assault on civil liberties, but he has pursued a ban on human embryonic stem cell research, challenged Oregon's assisted suicide law, and cracked down on medical marijuana in California—key issues on the Christian conservative agenda.

The mass media has mentioned, but chosen not dwell on, the embarrassing contrast between the Bush administration's stated outrage over the Taliban's treatment of women and its silence over gender apartheid as practiced by U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Like their counterparts in Afghanistan under the Taliban, Saudi women are required to wear an abaya, a robe that covers a woman from head to foot, and cannot travel without a male escort. They are not permitted to drive cars, rent hotel rooms, or eat in public places. Nor can they work in any occupation where they might have contact with men, except for medicine. A girl is allowed education only with her father's permission. Saudi women charged with a range of so-called sexual crimes can be lashed or even beheaded.

The Taliban's Department for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, the religious police renowned for beating Afghan women for not wearing the burqa properly, was modeled after a similar government organization in Saudi Arabia.5 Instead of condemning Saudi Arabia's oppression of women, however, the U.S. State Department has praised its "cultural accommodation" for allowing U.S. servicewomen to be stationed in Saudi territory. Though going to war ostensibly to liberate Afghan women from the burqa, the U.S. military requires its own women soldiers in Saudi Arabia to don the abaya and abide by other gender restrictions when in public.6 A Good Morning America host asked Laura Bush why the U.S. doesn't pressure Saudi Arabia to give women the right to drive and Kuwait to give women the right to vote. The first lady replied, "Well, at least one good thing is that women are educated in that country, and we all know how important education is for the success of any country."7

Under other circumstances, feminist leaders might have been expected to raise their voices against the transparent hypocrisy of the Bush administration. Instead, mainstream feminists have applauded Bush. The Feminist Majority even circulated a petition thanking the Bush administration for its commitment to restoring the rights of women in Afghanistan.8 Feminist Majority president Eleanor Smeal added to the general post–September 11 hysteria with such ruminations as, "We have become the bad guys; they are blaming all of their economic ruin on the West. They think we don't like Muslims, so instead, they become more fundamentalist: ‘We'll show you, we'll be more Muslim.'" She also advanced her own version of the domino theory:

We argued that the Talibanization of society would not stop in Afghanistan. We could see it moving into Pakistan, into Algiers and all through the Middle East to Turkey. We argued that it would lead to regional instability, and that this had much larger world ramifications than just what is happening to women there.... The link between the liberation of Afghan women and girls from the terrorist Taliban militia and preservation of democracy and freedom in America and worldwide has never been clearer.9

After the bombing began on October 7, Smeal said, "We have real momentum now in the drive to restore the rights of women."10 A few days after Laura Bush's November 17 radio address, representatives from the Feminist Majority, Equality Now, and other women's rights groups showed up at the White House for a press conference.11

Much ado about nothing

In the weeks after the victory of the U.S. in Kabul, Afghanistan, media outlets featured the smiling faces of Afghan women lifting their veils, crediting the U.S. with their "liberation." Confused liberals joined the war chorus. For example, novelist and feminist Jane Smiley wrote that she had been "very ambivalent" about the bombing of Afghanistan, that is, until "the Afghan women took off their burkas. That was when I put my doubts away, for the time being."12

But U.S. bombs were never meant to bring about the liberation of Afghan women. That is why, two months later, U.S. bombs continued to rain down upon war-ravaged Afghanistan, with the civilian death toll reaching into the thousands13 and with untold numbers dead from starvation—all while the plight of Afghan women was fast fading into the background. Even the photographs of women lifting their veils in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Kabul were little more than media hype. As one reporter for the Observer newspaper commented,

Foreign newspaper photographers, under pressure to produce images of the city's rejection of the Taliban, can be seen each day persuading a few women to remove these garments. What the photos do not show is the women putting them back on again moments later.14

The interim government of Afghanistan, pieced together at a summit in Bonn, Germany, in early December, has been praised for including two women among its 30 cabinet positions. These appointments represent token gestures, not any real commitment to women's rights. As journalist Laura Flanders commented,

Political representation is of minimal value to the Afghan woman bombed in her bedroom, or starving for lack of access to food and water, in a land where the roads, the dams, and the electricity plants have been devastated, and the fields are littered with cluster bombs.15

Afghan women activists did attempt to use the fall of the Taliban in November to spawn a new movement for women's rights. Far from supporting this struggle, however, the Northern Alliance forcibly stopped the fast-growing Union of the Women of Afghanistan from marching in Kabul twice in the first two weeks after the Taliban's fall. But these abrupt cancellations stirred little interest from the Bush administration. White House spokesperson Ari Fleischer said dismissively, "We're talking about different regions of the world where people have their own cultures and histories." He added, "We cannot dictate every day's events to everybody all throughout Afghanistan."16

The Bush administration's alleged concern for Afghan women was nothing but a cynical public relations ploy. The only surprise is that it worked so well. After all, U.S. oil executives and diplomats eagerly courted the Taliban through the end of 1997, when the U.S. wanted to build an oil pipeline from Soviet Central Asia through Afghanistan. A Taliban delegation, invited by Unocal, the Texas-based oil company, traveled to Houston in November 1997, "where they were put up in a five-star hotel, visited the zoo, supermarkets and the NASA Space Center. They had dinner at the home of Marty Miller, admiring his swimming pool and large comfortable house." Afterward, "the Taliban met with officials at the State Department."17 As one U.S. diplomat envisioned at the time, "The Taliban will probably develop like the Saudis did. There will be Aramco, pipelines, no emir, no parliament and lots of Sharia law. We can live with that."18

It seems that the U.S. has achieved through bombs what it failed to achieve through wining and dining the Taliban. The goal remains the same: to amass yet more profits for already massively profitable U.S. oil companies. Furthering its own global dominance motivated the U.S. war against Afghanistan, not any desire to free Afghan women.

The Taliban's roots in the CIA

The U.S. did not merely tolerate the Taliban; the CIA created it during the final throes of the Cold War. The U.S. provided $3 billion to build up an Islamic fighting force, known as the mujahideen, to oust the Soviet Union from Afghanistan in the 1980s. As journalist Ken Silverstein noted,

Though Reagan called the rebels "freedom fighters," few within the government had any illusions about the forces that the United States was backing. The mujahedin fighters espoused a radical brand of Islam—some commanders were known to have thrown acid in the faces of women who refused to wear the veil—and committed horrific human rights violations in their war against the Red Army.19

"I warned them that we were creating a monster," recalled Selig Harrison, of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, in March 2001. "They told me these people were fanatical, and the more fierce they were the more fiercely they would fight the Soviets."20 As BBC foreign correspondent Matt Frei summarized:

Afghanistan today is the product of a war fought by others on its soil. The U.S. and its allies plied this country with Stinger missiles and cash to fuel the mujahideen's opposition against Soviet occupation. They encouraged the growth of Islamic fundamentalism to frighten Moscow and of drugs to get Soviet soldiers hooked. The CIA even helped "Arab Afghans" like Osama bin Laden, now "America's most wanted," to fight here.21

After the final defeat of the Soviet-backed government, the U.S. had no further need for the mujahideen and left its warring factions to battle for political supremacy—taking no responsibility for the ensuing bloodbath and its consequent political barbarism. The mujahideen began the assault on Afghan women that culminated under the rule of the Taliban. In 1989, even before the Soviet Union pulled out of Afghanistan, mujahideen leaders based in Peshawar, Pakistan, issued a fatwa, or religious decree, ordering the killing of Afghan women who worked for humanitarian aid organizations (some were killed). Soon afterward, another edict was issued, ordering women to wear the hijab, a black garment covering the head and body with a veil that covers half the face. In 1990, it was decreed that women should not attend schools. To illustrate this point, mujahideen sprayed a Peshawar girls' school with bullets.22

An unstable coalition government, calling itself the Islamic State of Afghanistan, came to power in 1992. The government was actually made up of seven separate mujahideen political parties, each representing the fiefdom of a corrupt warlord.23 Its president, Burhannudin Rabbani, suspended the constitution and issued a series of religious edicts that banished women from broadcasting and government jobs and required them to wear veils.24

Civil war raged throughout the government of the Islamic State of Afghanistan from 1992 to 1996. The coalition of forces backing the Islamic State, known as the National Islamic United Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan, unleashed a reign of terror upon the already war-torn population. Now the United Front is known as the Northern Alliance, the anti-Taliban coalition backed by the United States. The list of human rights atrocities committed by these warlords includes civilian

killings, indiscriminate aerial bombardment and shelling, direct attacks on civilians, summary executions, rape, persecution on the basis of religion or ethnicity, the recruitment and use of children as soldiers, and the use of antipersonnel landmines.25

Women were routinely abducted, beaten, and raped, or sold into prostitution. According to human rights expert Patricia Gossman, "Between 1992 and 1995 fighting among the factions of the alliance reduced a third of Kabul to rubble and killed more than 50,000 civilians. The top commanders ordered massacres of rival ethnic groups, and their troops engaged in mass rape."26 The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), which opposed the U.S. war, argued, "The people of the world need to know that in terms of widespread raping of girls and women from ages seven to seventy, the track record of the Taliban can in no way stand up against that of these very same ‘Northern Alliance' associates."27

The Taliban, formed at the end of 1994, won the support of many based on its promise to put an end to the widespread lawlessness of the alliance warlords. However, the Taliban substituted its own brand of barbarism for the chaos.

Taliban rule

The scale of the gender apartheid instituted by the Taliban beginning in 1996 can only be fully appreciated in its historical context. Well into the 1990s, large numbers of Afghan women participated in the workforce and in public life. Afghanistan's 1964 constitution guaranteed women basic rights, including universal suffrage and equal pay with their male counterparts. Since the 1950s, girls in Kabul and other parts of the country attended schools just like boys did. Half of university students were women, and women made up 40 percent of Afghanistan's doctors, 70 percent of its teachers, and 30 percent of its civil servants. Women held important political posts as members of parliament and judges.28 Even many devout Muslim women wore head scarves and long dresses, not the burqa.

The Taliban came to power in a society already thoroughly devastated by 20 years of continuous warfare. The infant mortality rate is 163 deaths per 1,000 births, and the rate of women who die in childbirth is 8 percent—the highest rate in the world. One in four Afghan children dies before the age of five. Life expectancy for both women and men is just 43–44 years. Only 12 percent of the population has access to safe drinking water. Even before the Taliban, a staggering 90 percent of girls and 60 percent of boys were illiterate.29

The Taliban did diminish mass rape and violence against women, but it did so by dehumanizing them, covered from head to toe beneath the burqa and shut into their homes. Even inside their homes, their windows were painted black so they could not be seen. Women were not permitted to leave their homes unless accompanied by a close male relative. They were banned from laughing loudly or wearing shoes that might make a clicking sound when they walked. They were banned from using cosmetics or painting their fingernails (at the risk of having their fingers cut off). All women were banned from the workforce and schools.30

Dr. Lynn Amowitz of Physicians for Human Rights conducted an exhaustive survey of Afghan society before the U.S. war. She discovered that 70 percent of all women reported symptoms of depression. In Taliban-controlled areas, 18 percent of all women had attempted suicide; 9 percent in non-Taliban areas. Only 30 percent of suicidal women specifically blamed the Taliban's policies; rather, most cited the appalling conditions of life in an endless cycle of poverty and war.31

The Taliban's barbarism toward women was also directed toward other areas of society. Nearly every form of entertainment—movies, television, music, dancing, and even kite flying—was banned for the entire Afghan population. The traditional Afghan New Year celebration was also banned, and May Day was disavowed as a public holiday because it was deemed too "communist."32 Gays were persecuted mercilessly. As one leading Taliban religious scholar explained, "Some say we should take these sinners to a high roof and throw them down, while others say we should dig a hole beside a wall, bury them, then push the wall down on top of them." Both forms of punishment were used.33

Like women, men were forced to adhere to strict dress codes—shalwars, or baggy pants above the ankle, with beards no shorter than a man's fist—or they risked being beaten by the religious police. Education, banned for women and girls, was effectively denied to most boys as well. Since most of the teachers had been women, the entire educational system virtually collapsed after the Taliban banned women from the workforce. In December 1998, UNICEF reported that nine in ten girls and two in three boys were not enrolled in school. All of the warlords used boys as soldiers, some as young as 12. The Taliban forcibly conscripted male soldiers, who

have the "choice" of being shot, running away and not being able to protect their families or deserting to the opposition—and die fighting for them. What of the little boys who went to madrassahs (Islamic schools) to become good Muslims and find themselves in the terror of a boot camp training as Taliban cannon fodder? Do they want to be there any more than Afghan girls want to stay away from school?34

Perhaps not surprisingly, Amowitz found that more than 90 percent of both the men and women she interviewed said they believe in women's rights—including equal access to education, work, and representation in government. The vast majority reported that these rights should be part of any peace talks.35

U.S. bombs can't win women's liberation

U.S. bombs have brought Northern Alliance rapists and looters back to power in Afghanistan's U.S.-installed interim government. Journalist Robert Fisk argued that the newfound partnership of the U.S. with the Northern Alliance has

permitted us, for example, to ignore Abdul Rashid Dustum, one of the most powerful Alliance gangsters, whose men looted and raped their way through the suburbs of Kabul in the nineties. They chose girls for forced marriages [and] murdered their families.... Dustum had a habit of changing sides, joining the Taliban for bribes and indulging in massacres alongside the Wahhabi gangsters who formed the government of Afghanistan, then returning to the Alliance weeks later.36

Dustum, who has changed sides a total of nine times—backing the Soviets, the mujahideen, the Taliban, and, most recently, the Northern Alliance—was appointed in December to the post of deputy defense minister in Afghanistan. The U.S. bombing campaign has brought Afghanistan full circle, back to the rule of warring thugs. Women's liberation is not on the agenda in Afghanistan, to say the least.

Those interested in winning genuine liberation for Afghan women must firmly reject the notion that U.S. bombs can advance the interests of women—in Afghanistan or anywhere else. U.S. military intervention advances only the interests of U.S. rulers, who care nothing about women's rights. Business Week's cover story on post-Taliban Afghanistan, titled "Liberation," featured the smiling, uncovered face of an Afghan woman. But inside, the magazine's commentary quickly shifted to classic imperialist logic:

Indeed, after a decade in which many of the nation's campuses deprecated the study of Western civilization and embraced multicultural relativism, the liberation of the women and men of Afghanistan makes it clear that there is something very basic and profoundly moving about human freedom. If this is seen by some as American hegemony, so be it....

Women are either free or not free. Other religions are either respected or not. A clear polarity of values has been revealed on the streets of Kabul. When extremists take over a culture, we do have a clash of civilizations, and the tolerant one, in the end, is better than the other. That's what the lesson of Afghanistan teaches us all.37

Business Week's editors did not explain how the U.S. qualifies as "tolerant" for bombing the populations of its political opponents to smithereens.

New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof advised the U.S. government to use General Douglas MacArthur as a role model for constructing post-Taliban Afghanistan:

During the United States' occupation of Japan after World War II, we wrote a constitution for Japan that guaranteed equal rights for women, and similar nudging by us in the coming years can help all Afghans, men and women alike.38

The women who lived through the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki may beg to differ on the usefulness of atomic weapons as a means to advance women's rights, and they may also have a different recollection of their American occupiers. As liberal journalist David Corn pointed out recently:

The United States did not rush to help civilian victims of the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.... Washington did establish the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission in 1947, but this agency only studied the health condition of survivors and refused to offer medical treatment to them. When magazine editor Norman Cousins arranged to fly disfigured women from Hiroshima to the United States for cosmetic surgery, the State Department tried unsuccessfully to stop the trip. ("This project might lend fuel to the public opinion in favor of outlawing the atomic bomb," one senior State Department official said.)39

The role of women in fighting for their own liberation has been left completely out of the equation. Afghan women activists fought for their rights throughout the reign of the Taliban. Membership in RAWA was punishable by death, yet RAWA claimed 2,000 members who were willing to risk their lives to educate girls and to organize against the Taliban. Since the war, the numbers of women who are ready to organize and fight have grown more still—despite the lack of enthusiasm displayed by the interim government.

Soraya Parlika, an organizer of a women's march that was stopped by the Northern Alliance after the fall of Kabul, argued, "We wanted to call women from all the streets of Kabul and go to the [United Nations] and we were going to demand our rights. If we demonstrate we will throw off our burkas and we will throw them out forever." She added, "But, we don't want our women to be like those in the west where they are used for pornography and glamour."40

In this brief statement, Parlika expresses a determination to continue fighting against the latest set of gangsters ruling Afghanistan—and a deeper understanding of the route to women's liberation, East and West, than Eleanor Smeal ever has.

1 The full report is available online at

2 The full text of Laura Bush's radio address is available online at as part of the "Report on the Taliban's War Against Women."

3 Juleyka Lantigua, "Globally, women's condition not sugar, spice," Contra Costa Times, March 12, 2000.

4 In a January 18, 2001, Fox News Network interview, commentator Brit Hume asked, "But you would not rule out having your Justice Department argue for a change in [abortion] law were the opportunity to arise?" Bush replied, "Not at all, we'd just have to see what the case is. As you know, I campaigned as a pro-life candidate."

5 Janelle Brown, "Terror's first victims: When fanatics like the Taliban seize control of Islamic countries, women are the first to suffer," Salon, September 24, 2001; Ahmed Rashid, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil, and Fundamentalism in Central Asia (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001), p. 106.

6 Cassandra Balchin, "Feminist front," Red Pepper, December 2001; Ellen Goodman, "From burqas to abayas," Washington Post, December 8, 2001.

7 Maureen Dowd, "Hunks and brutes," New York Times, November 28, 2001.

8 Elizabeth Schulte, "Is the U.S. fighting for women's liberation?" Socialist Worker, December 7, 2001.

9 Brown, "Terror's first victims."

10 Eleanor Smeal, "Congressional testimony of E. Smeal on the plight of Afghan women," Feminist Majority Foundation, press release, October 10, 2001.

11 Laura Flanders, "Beyond the burqa: The rights women need in Afghanistan are basic human rights," December 12, 2001, available online at

12 Jane Smiley, "Women's crusade," New York Times Magazine, December 2, 2001.

13 Robert Jensen and Rahul Mahajan, "We can't just forget about dead Afghan civilians," CounterPunch (online), December 27, 2001. University of New Hampshire professor Marc Herold has estimated that at least 3,767 Afghan civilians were killed by U.S. bombs in the first eight and a half weeks of the war. But as Jensen and Mahajan argue, "[His] estimate of civilian deaths is, if anything, overly conservative." They (and Herold) estimate that closer to 5,000 civilians have been killed as a result of the war.

14 Chris Stephen, "The first rush of freedom," (London) Observer, November 18, 2001.

15 Flanders, "Beyond the burqa."

16 Dowd, "Hunks and brutes."

17 Rashid, p. 174.

18 Rashid, p. 179.

19 Ken Silverstein, "Blasts from the past," Salon, September 22, 2001.

20 Sanjay Suri, "CIA worked with Pak to create the Taliban," India Abroad News Service, March 6, 2001.

21 Matt Frei, "Hell on earth: Afghanistan," London Evening Standard, February 20, 2001.

22 Jan Goodwin and Jessica Neuwirth, "The rifle and the veil," New York Times, October 19, 2001.

23 For a concise chronology of the rise and subsequent fracturing of the mujahideen, see Peter Marsden, The Taliban: War, Religion, and the New Order in Afghanistan (London: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 27–42.

24 Goodwin and Neuwirth, "The rifle and the veil."

25 Human Rights Watch, "Military assistance to the Afghan opposition," press backgrounder, October 2001.

26 Patricia Gossman, "Tapping Afghanistan's peacemakers," Washington Post, September 27, 2001.

27 Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), "The ‘Northern Alliance': The most murderous violators of human rights!" December 10, 2001, available on RAWA's Web site at

28 Smeal, "Congressional testimony."

29 Rashid, pp. 107–09.

30 For a complete list of the Taliban's restrictions on women, see RAWA's Web site at

31 Janelle Brown, "Optional burqas and mandatory malnutrition," Salon, October 19, 2001.

32 See RAWA's Web site at

33 Rashid, p. 115.

34 Rashid, pp. 108–09; Balchin, "Feminist front."

35 Brown, "Optional burqas."

36 Robert Fisk, "Just who are our allies in Afghanistan?" (UK) Independent, October 3, 2001.

37 "Liberation," Business Week, commentary, December 3, 2001.

38 Nicholas D. Kristof, "The veiled resource," New York Times, December 11, 2001. Consumer activist Ralph Nader has also put forward the notion that the U.S. occupation of Japan was beneficial. In an interview with KFOG radio station in the Bay Area on October 9, 2001, Nader called on the U.S. to involve itself in the reconstruction of Afghanistan "just as we declared war against Japan, defeated Japan and we had General Douglas MacArthur have a peaceful occupation of Japan until he brought it around to a more peaceful and stable country and economy."

39 David Corn, "Reparations: The way to make amends; Regrets are all well and good, but we also need to pay up," Los Angeles Times, December 16, 2001.

40 Rory McCarthy, "Burkas stay on as women of Kabul wait for their liberation," (London) Guardian, November 28, 2001.


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